Inquisitive Printers – More Curious Items To Intrigue

Like most letterpress-loving people, we are drawn to the fascinating and the intriguing. This newest installment of the Inquisitive Printers focuses our attentions on cool history of playing cards (and Nintendo!) plus a portable printing museum, a Miami-based high school teacher and printer, and much more. Enjoy!

From Jake:  

Nintendo’s release of the latest Pokemon video game is not where I thought I’d find my printerly inquisition focused this month, admittedly; bear with me and I’ll lay out why it’s tickling my fancy so.

Pokemon began as a GameBoy title, but at the turn of the millennium it reached an outstanding level of cultural clout in its incarnation as a strategy and trading card game. Many of my generation heeded that none-too-subtle imperative “gotta catch ‘em all” filled school recesses and study hall periods with sharp-eyed trades and tournament play.

While it was never quite my scene, I did admire the quality finishing that went into the cards, with the full-color printing and foil embellishment on the various rare specimens. A much greater fascination to me is the fact that the entire Nintendo games empire had its beginning as a manufacturer of playing cards all the way back to 1889!

nintendo_logo_ace-spades_-art

(Photography courtesy of blog.beforemario.com)

This culture-defining behemoth of our video game era plugs directly backward into the larger and wilder story of playing cards, which themselves are deliciously wrapped up in the origins of the printing arts themselves.

Squint at them and you can see how dice, dominoes, and chess games are the simpler, sturdier parents of playing cards. For there to be cards, there has to be paper and printing, and so, of course, the first playing cards emerge in China. Unfortunately, since paper is so fragile and cards are objects much-handled, the earliest examples don’t survive into history. An early reference to their existence comes in 1294 A.D., documenting the arrest of two gamblers and the confiscation of both their game cards and the woodblocks that printed them. These cards weren’t merely for making wagers with, but themselves actually served as tokens exchangeable for money or drinks at the tavern: valuable collectible items, indeed!

Papermaking, printing, and playing cards traveled as a pack from China to Samarkand (Uzbekistan), then on to Baghdad to spread across the Mediterranean through the Muslim caliphates and the remnants of the Byzantine empire. Taking shape in Egypt and exported quickly across trade routes into Moorish Spain, the Arabic “mamluk” card game had already assumed a form familiar to the modern playing deck: 52 cards, arranged in four suits, ordered by ranks culminating in royal court figures. “Mamluk” means “property”, referring to a class of enslaved mercenary soldiers within the prevailing caste system. Puts one in mind of the more disturbing aspects of the Pokemon life cycle, with trainers “catching ‘em all” then making them fight each other for the trainers’ glory. (Just sayin’.)

mamluk-2-playing cards

(Photography courtesy of wopc.co.uk)

By the 14th century, these playing cards were spread across Europe and quickly became nativized. Mamluks easily translated into the aristocratic ranks of Europe’s feudal system, and those original four suits — polo sticks, swords, cups, and coins — mutated based on local culture. Spanish, German, Swiss, and Italian styled suits survive into the 20th century right alongside the French style we in the Anglo-American world are most familiar with: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. (Tarot enthusiasts will note that those original mamluk suits are exactly those that became our beloved and much-mystified oracle deck, but that also-very-printerly story needs another time for telling.)

Salzburg_pattern- playing Cards

(Photography courtesy of wikipedia.org )

As the printers of Marseilles, Nürnburg, and Venice stamped out the cards in varying grades of quality, so too did the traders vend these printed goods to the world. Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in 1543, carrying Iberian playing cards in their holds.  The Portuguese word “carta” became the Japanese “karuta”, and caught on well among the wealthy samurai. The isolationist Tokugawa shogunate soon banned them as a foreign influence, however, and so playing cards in Japan took on their own particular evolution, as printers and gamers worked around the restrictions. 

Variant decks multiplied, fusing older indigenous Japanese gaming traditions and innovating new ones. Some of those older traditions involved matching paintings on shells, or poems on squares of wood, and translated easily to paper cards. These poetry cards and other literary variants became popular educational tools for children.

Nintendo_1889-prefecture-store

The card ban wasn’t formally lifted until late in the Meiji period, when Japan was “westernizing”. Clandestine cardplayer Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Nintendo in 1889 and began manufacturing the popular Hanafuda (“Flower Game”) deck, which has 12 suits of 4 cards each.

FLower-GameCards

(Photography courtesy of user digitalhypnosisi (via imgur.com)

I imagine that Nintendo, innovative from the start, was among those early 20th century card manufacturers to produce “obake karuta”, card decks depicting mythological monsters (“obake”) and their names and attributes.  Sound familiar?

obake karuta

(Photography courtesy of horrorjapan.tumbler.com)

After the Second World War, Nintendo also began making western-style playing cards and began to branch out into toys and other goods. The first mega-hit toy product was, uncannily enough, an extending arm based on the pantograph — another printing-related hit in the story. From there, toy-making brought the company into electronics in the early 1970s, and from there, card pips turn to pixels and then once again we come to Pokemon.

So from East, to West, to East again, and then to global cultural dominance, the humble playing card moves, shakes, and shapes the world. Are we ultimately so sure it’s us playing them, I wonder, or is our game perhaps also playing us?

From Rebecca:   

Based in Miami, Florida, printer/teacher Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press appears on the Art & Company podcast. He talks about introducing the tangible craft of printing to students in the classroom  and about the future of printing at large. Come take a listen! 

Inquistive-Printers-Tom-Virgin-Art-Company-podcast
(Photo courtesy and credit: Art & Company Podcast / Alette Simmons-Jimenez )

Next up is the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule project. This nifty concept is a printing (and history) lover’s dream. It is a small, portable collection that celebrates type & printing.

Tiny Type Museum - Glenn Fleishman - img1
(Photo credit: Glenn Fleishman / Tinytypemuseum.com)

The Museum contains unique printing artifacts & resources spanning decades. The fit-on-your-bookshelf Museum features cast pieces of hot-metal, wood, and metal foundry type, scale-model replica of a California Job case and many more items to discover. 

Tiny Type Museum - Glenn Fleishman - img1
(Photo credit: Glenn Fleishman / Tinytypemuseum.com)

The project is helmed by Seattle, Washington-based Glenn Fleishman and in collaboration with many artists, printers, museums, and foundries.

We hope you explore some of our links and perhaps share in our enjoyment about what intrigues us here at Boxcar Press.  Email us at info@boxcarpress.com with the things that inspire you as well!

Keeping the Printing Rhythm With Tom Virgin

From Midwest to Miami and to teaching art by-day and printing-by-night, Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press weaves a letterpress journey of printmaking.  We caught up with Tom after hours on what makes his printing clock tick, the tales of teaching art in the high-school classroom, and the excellent food fare that is a must for a late night printing session in Miami.

Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press prints on a Vandercook.

PRINTING, SLUGS & ROCK’N’ROLL I was born and raised in the Midwest, just outside of Detroit. Fueled by blues, jazz, Motown, and rock & roll, I made my first print in 1972. I am now in my sixth childhood, having spent twice as much time in South Florida than in my native Great Lakes State.

IN TYPE-TOP SHAPE In 2004, I took a letterpress class with Kerry McAleer at Pyramid Atlantic Center in Silver Springs, Maryland. We made cards with a short quotation of our choice. Mine was:

“The course of true love nevər did run smooth.”– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Act 1, Scene 1

I quickly realized my mistake, reset the type, and reprinted. I decided the typo was more in the spirit of the original quote, and returned the position of the second “e” to the first version. This is my first love of letterpress story.

THE PRINTING TRANSITION I am a bookworm (and a storyteller). Printmaking eventually led me to book arts. The ability to create archival editions from press printed text and images was what made me finally get into letterpress.

Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press prints beautiful broadsides.

I have always worked in communal studios as a printmaker, so the transition to letterpress was a natural step. The first presses I printed on solo, were at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts in Boca Raton, Florida. Arthur Jaffe bought my very first book for the Jaffe Collection, and mentored me for the rest of his life.

SPLENDID IN THE SUNSHINE STATE Nestled in the middle of Little Haiti just north of Downtown Miami, I am a five minute drive from Korean fusion BBQ, Haitian cuisine, Thai food, awesome burgers and, right next door, Clive’s Jamaican Jerk Shop. Four blocks away is the Little Haiti Cultural Center. I am a white guy in Miami, living the cushiest minority experience on the planet. Extra Virgin Press has a Vandercook 4 Proof Press (formerly owned by Gaylord Schanilec, and lovingly donated to EVP by Regula Russelle of Cedar Fence Press- both from the Twin Cities in Minnesota). Our second press is a Challenge 15KP. Both presses are bringing back letterpress printing to the Miami community. The presses keep me from eating all of that amazing food, every waking hour.

The printing abode of Extra Virgin Press in Miami, Florida.

PRINTING MENTORS I am fortunate to have had many teachers and mentors, all of whom have contributed mightily to my printing practice. I am especially indebted to Arthur Jaffe, who welcomed me to the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, and John Cutrone (Convivio Books/Jaffe Center) in South Florida. Stephanie Shieldhouse at Highway Press, in Jacksonville, Florida gave critical support when Extra Virgin Press became a reality in 2016.

In Red Wing, Minnesota, in my home-away-from-home, the Anderson Center at Tower View, I have been well schooled by the proprietor of Red Dragonfly Press, Scott King. Scott and Robert Hedin, the retired Director of the Anderson Center also introduced me to Regula Russelle (Cedar Fence Press), Chip Schilling (Indulgence Press), Monica Edwards Larson (Sister Black Press), Amanda Degener (Cave Paper), CB Sherlock (Seymour Press), Gaylord Schanilec (Midnight Paper Sales), and Richard Stephens, all from Minnesota Center for Book Arts, one way or the other. Moe Snyder and Maria Cardenas set me straight in Portland, Oregon. Many others have lent me assistance and support.

Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press prints beautiful broadsides.

GETTING INSPIRED My Instagram feed is a constant inspiration. I follow all I can find. Regula’s Russelle’s books offer me a sublime view of the world of color that helps me escape from black and white woodcut prints. (Mary) Bruno Press, another Minnesota great, keeps me smiling, Amos Kennedy in Detroit offers a powerful moral compass, and damn fine work to back it up. Another Motown great is Signal-Return. When I grow up, I hope to create a community of dedicated printers like Lynne Avadenka has, in Downtown Detroit. Can I just say, “Hatch Show Print in Nashville?” Writers have enriched my life immeasurably.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS My visual arts practice included printing, painting, drawing, book arts, and public art, prior to my entry into letterpress printing.

Teaching high schoolers letterpress printing with Tom Virgin.

Teaching a full spectrum of arts classes in Title I Public High Schools in the fourth largest school district in the United States helped me with design. I suspect the students teach me more than I teach them. My colleagues in grad school, as well as fellow Professors, Adjunct Professors, and working artists have helped me to bring some skills to the letterpress world.

Tom Virgin and helper set-up Vandercook printing press.

PART TIME PRINTER, FULL TIME FUN At this point, I am printing after school and on weekends. That is the bulk of my waking hours. My retirement from the public schools will make it possible for me to print full time.

PRINTING FEATS —In 2006 I received the Florida Artist Book Prize for Right There, an artist’s book about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and a semi accurate account of my childhood in Michigan.

–I have taught five or six thousand teenagers about art.

–Extra Virgin Press has received support from the Knight Foundation, Cannonball Miami’s Wavemaker/Long Haul Grant, Miami Dade County Cultural Affairs, and the Miami Foundation, in its quest to bring letterpress back to Miami.

PRESS HISTORY [My very first press was] a Vandercook 4 Proof Press, Serial #13622.

Vandercook presses inside Extra Virgin Press in Miami, Florida.

BOXCAR’S ROLE Cathy and Rebecca make it possible for me to function in a letterpress world, answering far more questions than can be reasonably expected. The words on the website about setting up a letterpress shop are revelatory. Thank you Harold and Company.

SHOP (AND LIFE) TIPS I am still learning, but you will be the first to know.

WHAT’S NEXT I look forward to more printing, more books, more kids, more grant applications, and teaching new printers, so that I can run both presses every day.

A triple round of applause & thanks out to Tom Virgin of Extra Virgin Press for letting us take a sneak peek at his wonderful + tropical printing world!